How outrage is hijacking our lives | Hidden Brain Turn on the news or look at Twitter, and it's likely you'll be bombarded by outrage. Many people have come to believe that the only way to spark change is to incite anger. This week on Hidden Brain, how outrage is hijacking our conversations, our communities, and our minds.

Screaming Into The Void

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From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Millions of tweets are posted every day. Most of them get little attention, but there is one user whose tweets always make news.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Ding, ding, ding - there's been a POTUS tweet.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The president is up and tweeting this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: He just tweeted two minutes ago this. He said I'm extremely pleased to see that CNN has finally been exposed as fake news and garbage journalism. It's about time.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Trump tweeted, quote, the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit. Thinking of our leaders...


VEDANTAM: This is not an episode about Donald Trump. It's an episode about an emotion that predates him but that he has taken to an extreme. We now hear this emotion in the way we talk about a broad range of topics. The emotion is outrage.


TOMI LAHREN: With the stench of blatant bias and partisanship surrounding the Russia probe worsening by the day, he's right. Mueller's team could use a good flush.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He's despicable. It's embarrassing. It's humiliating to be an American and allow for this type of behavior to happen.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Vicious the way she said it - vicious - F word. That's not somebody that loves our country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In the heads of these psychotic Democrats and their friends in the media mob.

CHRIS CUOMO: I'm a sellout?

RUDY GIULIANI: You are a sellout.

VEDANTAM: Just like the president, many Americans have come to believe that the only way to spur change is by ginning up anger. It isn't enough to say your opponents are wrong. You have to say they are reprehensible. This can be for big issues like immigration and health care. It can be for smaller issues like the new album by Taylor Swift or the popularity of pumpkin spice. Is all this outrage effective? Well, yes...

JAY VAN BAVEL: For every moral emotional word that people use in a tweet, we found that it increased the rate of retweeting from other people who saw it by 15 to 20%.

VEDANTAM: ...But it comes at a cost. Outrage now leaps from our social media feeds and television screens to PTA meetings and family reunions. Many people feel overwhelmed by the shouting and disengage; others are so consumed with fury that they become unrecognizable to their friends and neighbors.


VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN - how outrage is hijacking our politics, our communities and our minds.


VEDANTAM: Saturday, January 19, 2019 - Julie Zimmerman checked Twitter and saw something that made her upset. It was a video filmed hundreds of miles from her home in Ohio at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

JULIE IRWIN ZIMMERMAN: There was this older Native American man, and these kids surrounded him and were yelling things at him and laughing at him. And they were blocking his path. He apparently was trying to, you know, walk over to the Lincoln Memorial or something like that, and they wouldn't let him through.

VEDANTAM: The kids surrounding this man looked like 15-year-old boys. They were nearly all white. A few were making gestures that looked like tomahawk chops. Some wore hats that read Make America Great Again.

ZIMMERMAN: These kids were making fun of this guy because he was Native American because he had a drum and was chanting something unfamiliar to them. It was pretty cringeworthy.

VEDANTAM: We're going to look at Julie's encounter with the story in some detail because it's revealing about how outrage works today. Like many others watching that day, Julie fixated on one boy in the video. He was standing directly in front of the Native American man staring at him. He had what looked like a smirk on his face as the older man sang.

ZIMMERMAN: His image evoked all the horrifying things Americans have done to Native Americans throughout the centuries.

VEDANTAM: As the day went on, more details emerged. The boys were students at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky just across the river from Cincinnati, where Julie lives.

ZIMMERMAN: I started seeing tweets that the kids were chanting build the wall, build that wall.

VEDANTAM: Julie's son was around the same age as the kids in the video, and he also went to a Catholic school. Julie texted him.

ZIMMERMAN: I said, you know, if I ever caught you acting that way, I - I mean, I'd be horrified.

VEDANTAM: By the evening...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Now to the outrage over a video showing...

VEDANTAM: ...The story was everywhere.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: By now, it's likely that you've seen this video.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: You've probably seen it by now, the viral video sweeping the Internet of a mob of MAGA hat-wearing high school students...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: A troubling scene many are calling racist played out in Washington yesterday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Clearly, these boys are not getting a good education because it makes little sense to angrily chant build the wall to a population with literally zero illegal immigrants who were here long before we were.


ZIMMERMAN: I talked to a friend of mine who lives in New York, a former roommate of mine, and she said her yoga teacher called and said let's drive to that school in Kentucky and protest. Like, that's the sort of level of reaction people were having to this. Like, this yoga teacher in New York wanted to hop in the car and drive 10 hours to protest in front of the school.

VEDANTAM: While Julie's friends were texting her messages of outrage, her son was having very different conversations about the same video.

ZIMMERMAN: His friends had started texting him at some point on Saturday saying, you know, I think that these guys are getting a bum rap. I don't think they're guilty of what they're being accused of.

VEDANTAM: Sunday, January 20, 2019 - in the late morning after church, Julie checked Twitter. She saw that someone had uploaded a nearly two-hour-long video which showed much more of the confrontation between the Catholic school students and the Native American man.

ZIMMERMAN: I started watching because I wanted to show my son where the kids had been chanting build the wall. He challenged me on that point. And I watched the hour-plus video of the incident, and I couldn't find anywhere where they had been chanting that.


VEDANTAM: And that wasn't all. This is what the longer video showed.

ZIMMERMAN: The kids were on the Mall.

VEDANTAM: For the annual March for Life.

ZIMMERMAN: Which is an anti-abortion march that happens every year in January.

VEDANTAM: It was right before Martin Luther King Day. The Mall was packed.

ZIMMERMAN: And there was a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites. And they were yelling vile things at the kids.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A bunch of babies made out of incest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Trailer park baby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Right, trailer park babies. This is what America makes - Make America Great looks like.

ZIMMERMAN: You know, somebody yelling something at you doesn't give you justification to yell anything back, but I thought that set a tone that these kids, some of whom may have never been in a situation like this, might have been feeling nervous or attacked or - I don't know. It - the insults being yelled by the Black Hebrew Israelites definitely altered my understanding of what happened next.

VEDANTAM: The Indigenous Peoples March was also taking place in D.C. that day. Nathan Phillips was the older man in the original viral video.

ZIMMERMAN: I saw Phillips walk over to the kids on this longer video, and, remember, the original video had just shown Phillips surrounded by these kids. And the extrapolation originally was that these kids had walked up to Phillips and surrounded him and blocked his path and not allowed him to pass. Well, as you watch the longer video, you see Phillips and an entourage. I mean, there were a lot of people with Phillips all walking over to talk to the kids. So Phillips had not been trying to get somewhere and these kids blocked him. He actually went up and initiated the interaction with the kids.

VEDANTAM: And what were the kids doing? What were they chanting? What were they shouting?

ZIMMERMAN: Some of them were trying to make their friends laugh. They - some of them were being offensive. I think, you know, doing a tomahawk chop is an offensive thing to do.

VEDANTAM: And the student who was smirking at Nathan Phillips...

ZIMMERMAN: He was laughing for a while, and then they kind of locked eyes, and I don't know what he was thinking. I don't know what he was feeling. But I've seen that look on teenagers where you've got waves of thoughts passing through your head and your underlying thinking is, what do I do? I don't know what to do, you know. He looked nervous to me.


VEDANTAM: Julie had seen the smirking boy as emblematic of the terrible things done to Native Americans. Now she saw a teenager who was trying hard not to show his friends that he was nervous. On social and broadcast media, the outrage flipped.

ZIMMERMAN: If you were left leaning, you were outraged by these kids. Originally, if you were conservative, you just put your head under a rock because even you couldn't defend what you originally saw. Then there was a reaction to it where a lot of conservatives, after they had seen the longer video, started defending these kids. And what was interesting to me was how difficult it was for people to change their original take on it.


ZIMMERMAN: I was afraid to tell a few people initially that I had changed my mind about the Covington Catholic thing, which is crazy. Like, why can't you just say, you know, I think I was wrong about this? But I knew some people would be upset because it's as though you're giving your enemy ammunition by admitting that they might be right and you might have been wrong, and you can't ever show weakness or, you know, admit that maybe the other side has a point.

VEDANTAM: Julie told a friend about her change of heart, and her friend encouraged her to write an essay about it.

ZIMMERMAN: And I wrote that essay probably in 15 minutes. I mean, it just spilled out. And I submitted it for publication, and it was published very quickly.

VEDANTAM: The essay was published in The Atlantic. The headline read "I Failed The Covington Catholic Test." In the piece, Julie admitted she had been hasty and quick to judgment.


VEDANTAM: Almost immediately after her essay was posted, it prompted howls of outrage from the right.

ZIMMERMAN: My essay was weaponized against liberals, against progressives. And I - you know, it made me uncomfortable to see that. Like, oh, gosh, did I make a mistake here?


ZIMMERMAN: My brother-in-law called my husband to say, Rush Limbaugh just mentioned your wife's name on the air. And I thought, oh, gosh, what have I done?


RUSH LIMBAUGH: One of the drive-by media outlets that really roasted these kids from Covington was at The Atlantic. And a writer at The Atlantic has published a piece, "I Failed The Covington Catholic Test: Next Time There's A Viral Story, I'll Wait For More Facts To Emerge." Julie Irwin Zimmerman - she was one of the early pilers on and she's begging forgiveness. She failed the test. She went along with it - why does anybody in their right mind - I know the temptation, but why isn't there even a moment's pause when anything from social media becomes source material in drive-by media? It is a cesspool. And everybody knows that it's a cesspool...

VEDANTAM: Rush Limbaugh was wrong in several ways. Julie didn't work at The Atlantic and had nothing to do with their initial coverage. And she was not an early piler on. Before she wrote her essay, she herself had posted nothing on social media about the Covington Catholic students. In addition, lots of journalists had, in fact, covered the story with nuance. Ironically, Rush Limbaugh was doing exactly what Julie had initially done. He was leaping to sweeping conclusions - about liberals, about Julie, about journalists - with very limited evidence.

This is the way our cycles of outrage work. Each blast produces misstatements, exaggerations and errors. These are then seized upon by the other side, which precedes to produce its own misstatements, exaggerations and errors.


VEDANTAM: The cycle feeds on itself.


VEDANTAM: The outrage in the Covington Catholic school scandal is emblematic of our times. Right-wing talk radio invented the modern art of the rant. Cable television pundits perfected it. Social media has made outrage part of daily discourse. Now instead of a handful of screaming voices on radio and TV, you have thousands of people - on the right and the left - enraged about politics and each other.


VEDANTAM: Events that would never have been considered news stories now dominate the headlines. Julie used to be a reporter and editorial writer at The Cincinnati Enquirer.

ZIMMERMAN: If you were my editor and I came to you and said, yeah, this Native American guy and these kids in MAGA hats kind of got in this tense standoff on the mall today and I think it's a story, any self-respecting editor would say, you know - well, did somebody get shot? You know, how, like, how is this a story? This - weird confrontations between people happen all the time, and we don't consider them to be news stories.

VEDANTAM: But the ground rules have changed. All of a sudden, there are powerful incentives to be fastest to react and loudest to shout.

ZIMMERMAN: People are falling all over each other to be first in line to say how awful this was. You get to show how woke you are or how conservative you are without actually doing any work. You just look at something, you retweet it, you try to make a really smart funny comment that thousands of people will retweet. And then you kind of pat yourself on the back for being involved in the conversation. But you have done nothing.


VEDANTAM: Is Julie right? Is all this anger really accomplishing nothing?


VEDANTAM: What researchers have found about the science of viral outrage when we come back.


VEDANTAM: Cast your mind back to a party, one that happened a long, long time ago.


VEDANTAM: Someone at this party does something bad...


VEDANTAM: ...Maybe steals something.


VEDANTAM: The group has to decide what to do with this lawbreaker. Do nothing and the transgressor might do bad stuff again; better to punish him or cast him out.


VEDANTAM: Over thousands of generations, humans learned that punishing bad behavior accomplished useful things.

MOLLY CROCKETT: It's like evolution placed a bet on that being a good idea for the group.

VEDANTAM: This is Yale psychologist Molly Crockett. Molly says outrage about wrongdoing and the punishments it produced kept people in line. This was good for the group. It also happened to be good for individuals. Our brains evolved to give us a little boost when we get outraged and punish someone.

CROCKETT: When people decide to punish somebody who's behaved unfairly, we see activation in brain areas associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex.

VEDANTAM: In layman's terms, calling out another person's bad behavior feels good. Molly and her team have conducted experiments where they ask volunteers to play the role of a punisher. When the volunteer sees something unfair, she can punish the person responsible. Molly says people asked to play the role of punisher are not only willing to penalize wrongdoers but to make personal sacrifices in order to do so.

For example, in one experiment, the punisher sees that someone has divided a pot of money unfairly rather than share it equitably with another person.

CROCKETT: I can spend some money to burn your money and you get sent a message saying that that happened. And you get a final payoff. And you learn how big it could have been if I hadn't burned some of your money.

VEDANTAM: In this rational model of punishment, wrongdoers know they are being punished. In fact, it is this knowledge that is supposed to act as a deterrent. But Molly and her team asked a deeper question. Would volunteers also be willing to punish transgressors who don't get told they're being punished?

CROCKETT: The only reason why I would punish you when it's in secret is if I get some personal satisfaction from knowing that you, as an unfair person, end up with less money.

VEDANTAM: Even when transgressors had no idea they were being punished, when they didn't know how much they would have received otherwise, Molly found that punishers were more than happy to mete out justice.

CROCKETT: There's a sort of visceral satisfaction in doling out punishment. And this is corroborated by the brain imaging evidence, which shows that when we decide to punish, we see activation in brain areas associated with reward.

VEDANTAM: Outrage, in other words, has been so valuable in our evolutionary history that it operates like other important biological functions. It gives us pleasure.


VEDANTAM: But here's the thing, remember the context in which outrage evolved.

CROCKETT: It evolved in an environment where we interacted with people face to face, in small groups, in situations where we're going to repeatedly interact with the same people.

VEDANTAM: In this context, outrage produced benefits, but it also came with costs that prompted people to be judicious about it. If your neighbor Agh (ph)...


VEDANTAM: ...Stole someone's food and you vented your anger at him, it might feel good, but it could also be dangerous. Agh could get mad at you, punch you in the throat. You would have to judge when and where and how much it made sense to express outrage.

What happens when we take an emotion, carefully calibrate it for small-led groups and give it a global platform?

CROCKETT: It's not very well equipped for the environment in which we find ourselves now, where the audience is much, much bigger than it traditionally has been.

VEDANTAM: Now I can be angry at total strangers half a world away. And my physical costs of expressing that outrage? Close to zero.


VEDANTAM: Given that the psychological benefits are high and the physical costs are low, there are few checks on outrage anymore. This is why many of us today feel surrounded by outrage. It's nearly impossible to escape.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No, no, what's funny is you sit behind your cushy chair...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Let me tell you who dodges bullets, thousands and thousands...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: United States veterans have gone into the line of fire...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: No, you don't understand my point because you never lived a day in my shoes. It's absolutely appalling. Are you trying to say this country does not...

VEDANTAM: Molly has noticed something else. Many us don't want to escape the vitriol. People on both the right and left revel in it.

CROCKETT: As a user of social media, one thing that I noticed in my own behavior - particularly after the 2016 elections - was just how much more time I was spending online and particularly how I felt myself getting sucked in to feedback loops where I would read something, I would feel outraged about it, I would feel compelled to share it with my friends. I would then be sort of obsessively checking to see whether people had responded, how they had responded - you know, lather, rinse, repeat.

VEDANTAM: Every time Molly plugged herself into circuits of outrage, every time she fired off a zinger about President Trump, the ancient circuits in her brain gave her a little reward. Fast-forward to early 2017.


LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Donald Trump's executive order barring many foreigners, including all refugees, from entering the U.S. caused confusion at airports around the world. Travelers of...

VEDANTAM: The Trump administration began advancing a series of anti-immigration measures.

CROCKETT: A friend of mine shared an article that the story was about something, like, the economic benefits of immigrants and how farms in California were seeing tomatoes rot on the vine because they couldn't find enough workers to harvest those tomatoes. And I read this. I was outraged. I shared it. And then a lot of my friends liked it, and then I got a comment from someone that I didn't even really know that well. And they said, the date of this article is 2011.

VEDANTAM: 2011 - the president at that time was not Donald Trump but someone Molly admired - Barack Obama. Molly quietly deleted the Facebook post, but the incident was a wake-up call. She looked back on her behavior, how she would get lost in a world of posts, shares and likes.

CROCKETT: It was like coming out of a trance and having this realization that time had disappeared and that I had been engaged in a feedback loop not unlike the apparatus that my Ph.D. lab used to train rats to press levers to get cocaine - literally. Like, I'm not saying that social media is cocaine. I think there are actually really important distinctions between substance addiction and social media use, and they get conflated a lot in the media. But one thread that they have in common is that both of these processes do seem to tap into our reinforcement learning circuitry in the brain.


VEDANTAM: Most of us underestimate how powerful this brain circuitry can be, how vulnerable we are to the psychological rewards that come from feeling, really truly mad about something and then seeing our outrage amplified by others.

CROCKETT: Social rewards are just as powerful, if not more powerful, in driving learning and decision-making than chocolate or money, right? The approval of our peers is, like, the most potent reward you can get for social beings like us.

VEDANTAM: Social media platforms take our love for this kind of approval and pour rocket fuel on it. When you shared a story with a group of friends in the days before social media, you might not know exactly what they thought of it. You had to watch their faces, and even then, the responses might be ambiguous. But these days...

CROCKETT: Now we get a count. We can see, oh, 10 friends liked that article I shared, but the one I shared yesterday got 70 likes. So these are signals that we can use to tune our behavior, and we have quantified social feedback now in a way that was much more vague before social media.


VEDANTAM: Since humans are smart animals who learn quickly from feedback, we discover that there are very specific ways to get this delicious social approval.

VAN BAVEL: My name is Jay Van Bavel. I'm a psychology professor at New York University.

VEDANTAM: Jay and his team have analyzed more than half a million tweets. He has found there is an easy way to dramatically increase likes and retweets.

VAN BAVEL: For every moral emotional word that people use in a tweet, we found that it increased the rate of retweeting from other people who saw it by 15 to 20%.

VEDANTAM: Posts were retweeted 15 to 20% more if people used a moral or emotional word. The list of words that Jay and his colleagues defined as moral and emotional is quite long. Curse words are on the list, of course. Some other examples are words like hate, war, greed, punish. Jay read me some sample tweets.

VAN BAVEL: So on the topic of same-sex marriage, here's an example tweet from a conservative. (Reading) Gay marriage is a diabolical, evil lie aimed at destroying our nation.

And the moral, emotional words here are evil and destroying, and they're both negative, highly potent words. From a liberal, we have a tweet (reading) new Mormon policy bans children of same-sex parents. This church wants to punish children - a question mark. Are you kidding me? Shame.

VEDANTAM: You can also generate outrage without using those specific words, of course. You can say, can you believe she said that? Or what kind of a country do we live in today? Jay's analysis didn't include tweets like that, but even using his more conservative measure, Jay found that moral and emotional words caused messages to spread.

VAN BAVEL: And you can, you know, jam a lot of words that have moral emotions in them in a single message and increase the likelihood your message is going to be shared by 60 or 80 or 100%.

VEDANTAM: This outrage often begets more outrage.

VAN BAVEL: Twitter is weird because, you know, there's a level of outrage. Then you have people who are outraged about the outrage because it's the wrong type of outrage. Then you have people who are outraged about that outrage. And then you have another group of people who are outraged that you're not outraged enough (laughter). So you have these four forms of outrage going on at any given time, and it just cycles through issue after issue on a 24-hour basis.

VEDANTAM: To be sure, outrage sometimes produces real change. It can bring together marginalized communities. It can fuel social movements, such as the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter. It can help win elections.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up.

MICHAEL FLYNN: Lock her up - that's right.

VEDANTAM: Outrage can be especially effective if your goal is to pull someone down. After all, this might be what the emotion was designed for in the first place.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: Today, Al Franken took to the mic as his political career came crashing down.

AL FRANKEN: I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: His resignation came after a number of his colleagues called for him to go...

KATHY GRIFFIN: I went too far. I made a mistake. And I was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: In an apology video posted on Twitter, Kathy Griffin is begging for forgiveness after images of her holding the severed head...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: Oscar news overnight - Kevin Hart stepping down as host. This came just days after his name was announced and, of course, after a firestorm over past anti-gay tweets.


VEDANTAM: Coming up - what outrage does not do well and how to deploy fury more effectively.


VEDANTAM: It can feel good to start a fire, to see all the push notifications that come to your phone as people like and retweet your outrage. Studies show that the more outrage you demonstrate, the more your message is likely to spread. But psychologist William Brady at Yale says there is a great paradox in the way outrage works. Outrage leads to engagement but not always to change.

WILLIAM BRADY: The type of people you're getting to, that is, giving you the shares and the likes, it tends to be people who share your political views, so people of the same political ideology.

VEDANTAM: In other words, outrage is very effective at spreading a message within an echo chamber.

BRADY: The use of outrage, the use of moral and emotional language on social media, it really depends on the context and what you're trying to accomplish. If you want to rally the troops, get my people who already agree with me to get interested and to get motivated to act or is it really to try to persuade others? If your goal is the former, then expressing yourself with moral emotions like outrage can be really effective. If your goal is the latter, then perhaps it's not the best idea.

VEDANTAM: In a study that William has conducted with Jay Van Bavel, he found that tweets without a moral and emotional tone were better able to start conversations between people from different political persuasions. In some ways, this makes intuitive sense. When was the last time you changed your mind because someone screamed at you?


VEDANTAM: And that leads to an interesting question - why do we still see so much outrage even when we know that it causes the people who disagree with us to tune us out? Aren't those precisely the people whose minds we want to change? Molly Crockett thinks there's a reason beyond our own personal motivations. It has to do with the business models of social media platforms and broadcast outlets.

CROCKETT: The goal of the platforms is not the explicit goal of keeping us outraged. It just happens to be that outrage is one way to grab attention and increase engagement. And their goal is engagement and holding our attention as much as possible because that's what's monetized in the business model of the social media platforms.

VEDANTAM: The private benefits of outrage do not flow only to big companies. Increasingly, pundits, commentators and social media influencers use their visibility to drive advertising, book sales and brand development.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: There is a new No. 1 atop The New York Times Best Seller list - Tucker Carlson's "Ship Of Fools" unseating Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump In The White House."

PHILLIP MCGRAW: What motivated you to write this book?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Well, you know, during the 2016 election, I was noticing the level of anger that was just palpable...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Do you like my shirt, guys?



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: And if you haven't ordered it yet or you haven't picked it up, make sure you do that. It's a great Fourth of July read 'cause it's all about...

VEDANTAM: These private incentives explain why the well for outrage runs deep, why there are new things to be outraged about every hour of every day. While this makes excellent sense for the business models of influencers and their media platforms, Molly says it does not make much sense for the rest of us.

CROCKETT: It's just constant. There is a constant drip feed of outrage, and it makes it hard to know where to focus your efforts.

VEDANTAM: At a certain point, audiences start to become numb. If you were supposed to be angry about one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday, by Wednesday, you're exhausted. You may start to tune things out. You can't prioritize what you care about because the volume on everything...


VEDANTAM: ...Is turned to 11. In the process, things that actually need our attention where the volume needs to be turned to 11 are drowned out. Careful vetting and investigative reporting today are regularly overshadowed by incendiary opinion. A similar dynamic is playing out in many parts of the world. In Britain, caught up in a bitter fight about whether to leave the European Union, about two-thirds of people say they no longer can tell the difference between rumor and reporting.

CROCKETT: If you're dialing up the volume on all outrage, then it may become more difficult to detect signal in an increasingly noisy public sphere. And this could increase errors that we make in deciding which issues we collectively think are most worthy of our attention and support.


VEDANTAM: Molly Crockett and William Brady are studying whether outrage might also be counterproductive to activists. Does blasting out angry tweets cause some people to feel they have done their part, to forgo the more difficult challenges of protesting in public, driving legislation or showing up to vote? In other words, can outrage foster slacktivism?

BRADY: I think that's a genuine worry. I don't think we have the data to know for sure, but it is a possibility. And it is something we should worry about because if you're a certain type of person and maybe you only have enough time to take one action and not do both, then maybe expressing outrage because it is less costly on social media is, you know, what you end up doing. And then you don't actually go and you don't actually protest. You don't actually put pressure on legislators, like, what is really needed to create concrete change.


VEDANTAM: For her part, Julie Zimmerman says her experience has changed the way she feeds off outrage.

ZIMMERMAN: If you can limit yourself to just those occasional check-ins, a lot of the stories that are wasting people's time have gone away by the next time you sign on.

VEDANTAM: She's also decided to refocus her emotional energy.

ZIMMERMAN: You can stand up and be super outraged about something national, but if you really want to have an impact, yeah, go pick up litter in the intersection near your house or go, you know, work at an animal shelter. Like, there are things that we can do every day that improve our lives and the lives of people around us. But they don't give us that, you know, that drug of having a hot take (laughter) spread around social media.


ZIMMERMAN: We tell ourselves - well, we're being good citizens, we're keeping up on the news. We're just entertaining ourselves, you know, at great expense to our society.


VEDANTAM: So many tools of modern culture take ancient circuits in the brain and put them in hyperdrive. We evolve to need nutrition, but many of us are surrounded by so much food that we now get sick. We evolve to care about relationships, but social media has weaponized this, transforming personal connections into metrics of self-worth. Getting angry at wrongdoers was helpful in our evolutionary past, but when people apply that same impulse today on talk radio and Twitter, what we get are doxing and death threats.


VEDANTAM: Our capacity for outrage, honed over millennia, gives our society guardrails. It tells us how we're supposed to behave, and it can lead to positive change. But used recklessly or for self-promotion, outrage can poison the way we interact with each other. It can imprison us in our own echo chambers.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Laura Kwerel, Thomas Lu and Jenny Schmidt, engineering support from Andy Huether.


VEDANTAM: Our unsung hero this week is Will Chase. Producing an episode about outrage involved listening to lots of tape from cable news and talk radio. Will is a librarian here at NPR, and we relied on his sleuthing to uncover some of the tape used in today's program. Thank you for your diligence, Will.


VEDANTAM: If you like this episode, please be sure to share it with a friend. We're always looking for new people to enjoy HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR.


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